Band Drums Up a Better Education for Blacks

With their bone-rattling rhythms, Brazil's blocos afros have drummed their way into the ears of the world, landing recording spots with artists such as Paul Simon.

Now the black musicians are using their talent and fame to drum up educational opportunities for children in the dirt-poor neighborhoods of Salvador, on the coast of northeast Brazil.

One in 5 teenagers here cannot read or write; only 40 percent of students stay on past elementary school.

Behind the padlocked gates of Ile Aiye's percussion school, a group of children from the tough Liberdade ghetto wriggle impatiently on a wooden bench. As they listen to the director, they eye the drums across the room.

Paulo Raimondo Bonfim warns them to keep their school clean and to avoid drugs and street fights. "You will be judged on your attendance, appearance, behavior," he rattles off before letting the children pounce on the instruments.

Music class is their reward for high marks and perfect attendance at Mae Hilda, a public school founded by the musical group Ile Aiye. "We try to use nontraditional methods to help them find their origins, so they value being black," Mr. Bonfim explains.

Brazil agrees there is a dire need for innovation in education, especially in the impoverished northeast. A study by the National Institute of Geography and Statistics found that 17 percent of adolescents in the region can't read. Nationwide, 12 percent of 15-to-19 year olds don't work or go to school. "This situation leads to juvenile delinquency," says Felicia Madeira, a public-policy researcher at the Seade Foundation.

Educators hope these new programs - similar to arts-enrichment programs in the United States - will change that. "We want to change the curriculum to make school more attractive [to young blacks]. Liberdade is a black neighborhood," says Ile Aiye president Antonio Carlos dos Santos Vov, pointing to the dusty streets of the city, settled 100 years ago by freed slaves. "The [curriculum] should be closer to our reality."

The curriculum of Mae Hilda, approved by the Ministry of Culture, highlights the achievements of Brazil's 3.5 million African slaves and their descendants who resisted oppression through religion, music, and political rebellions.

To help pay for the school, Ile Aiye this year is opening an alternative bloco to white participants - for a $100 fee.

Centia Maria dos Santos Gomes says she begged her father, a member of the band, to let her enroll. "Kids in my old school weren't interested in learning. They don't want to stay until graduation," the 15-year-old says. "We learn a lot more here.... We go on trips, play in the band. We are taught to respect each other."

Eliete Matos dos Santos, one of four full-time teachers, says parents show up in tears, begging for their children to be admitted. Almost all Ile Aiye's students graduate and go on to secondary school, compared with 40 percent nationally, she says.

In addition to subjects like math and history, students take part in a rigorous arts program. One day they might listen to a recording of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the next they might hear a recording of African songs and discuss events at that time in African history.

"In regular school, they don't talk about our culture. Most kids are ashamed of being black. But here they learn to value it," Ms. Dos Santos says.

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